Posted Friday, April 29, 2005
Florida, others reopen civil rights death cases
Gov. Jeb Bush asked state law enforcement officials to open the half-century-old civil rights murder case of Johnnie Mae Chappell, following a regional trend.
By AUDRA D.S. BURCH
William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
Nearly a half-century after the civil rights movement, a new generation of prosecutors and state officials -- some born after the era ended -- is reexamining some of the South's worst hate crimes.
This week, Gov. Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black woman murdered on her way home 41 years ago in Jacksonville. In February, state Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened the case of a Mims activist couple murdered in 1951.
Cases all over the Deep South -- Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and now Florida -- are being reopened despite aging suspects and witnesses. Over the past decade, more than a dozen white supremacists have been convicted in killings during the Civil Rights era.
''Time is running out,'' says Penny Weaver, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based group that tracks hate crimes. ``There's just a few cases left, and time or age should not matter.''
Chappell's admitted shooter, J.R. Rich, was convicted and served time, but charges were eventually dropped against three other suspects, all of whom are still alive. For its brutality and suspicion of police corruption, the case came to symbolize the danger of the civil rights struggle in Jacksonville and the rest of the South.
The Poverty Law Center counts about 15 remaining known civil rights ''cold'' cases of crimes committed between 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, and 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Civil rights experts say this number is but a fraction, though, as it includes only cases with enough details to be investigated.
''Justice is one of those broad and interesting words that in real life sometimes means very little, but if you are talking about healing, you have to open these cases, pursue them and give the families a final chapter,'' said Susan Glisson, director of the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
ASKS FOR `A REVIEW'
In a letter sent Wednesday to FDLE Commissioner Guy M. Tunnell, Bush asked for ''a review, investigation and determination as to whether enough evidence exists today to support the filing of criminal charges'' against three men who were indicted but were never tried for lack of evidence in the slaying of Chappell. Crist's office also is reviewing the case.
The FDLE was asked to review the Chappell case once before, in 1979, at the request of then-Gov. Bob Graham. The office concluded the case should be officially reopened, but no action was taken, and it is not clear why. Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said he thought the FDLE examined allegations of police corruption, rather than details of the actual murder.
In December, state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, asked Bush to appoint a special prosecutor to the case. A Herald article published April 19 brought new attention to the case. ''I am sure the governor is treading cautiously, making sure everything is in order, but we have been here before,'' Hill said. ``For the life of me, I cannot understand how four people were involved and only one person went to trial.''
In 1964, Johnnie Mae Chappell was walking along Jacksonville's New Kings Road, looking for a wallet she had lost while buying ice cream for her children. As race riots raged miles away, Chappell was shot, and Rich confessed he was the gunman.
Over the years, the Chappell family and Lee Cody, a sheriff's deputy who arrested the men, have fought for justice. Their efforts have largely stalled in state offices until now.
Hill said he is exploring filing a bill during the current legislative session to award the surviving Chappell children reparations.
Civil rights cold cases are typically an uphill battle for surviving family members and activists who help them. With decades gone by, prosecutors are hobbled by lost time, records and evidence.